**This blog entry orginally appeared on the website oceanspaces.org.**/p>
Throughout many of the conversations we hold with coordinators of citizen science programs, the challenge of maintaining an active volunteer base arises. However, within citizen science volunteerism, there’s no definitive strategy guide for how to recruit and retain best.
One example keeps arising in our discussions around MPA monitoring is that it is difficult to get volunteers to go to some of the more remote MPAs. Ano Nuevo Marine Reserve is a particular challenge because it’s too far south for people from San Jose and too far north for people from Santa Cruz to go on a regular basis. It’s fun once, to go to a new place and maybe collect some data while there, but it’s taxing to commit to regular visits that require a lengthy drive each time. photo: Ano Nuevo State Reserve, photo from everytrail.com
So we’re dedicating this month’s question to recruitment and retention. What’s the best way to recruit and retain volunteers? On the flip side, have you tried something that didn’t work?
One simple lesson I’ve gleaned from our conversations with citizen science programs is that you need to design a project around things people care about, and activities they want to do. It seems that accomplishing both of these things is pretty challenging.
For example, one beach clean-up group we spoke with is having trouble expanding from a stewardship-focused activity to a more scientific undertaking. Their volunteers don’t seem to be motivated by the idea of collecting data on the trash they are picking up. They care about the cleanliness of their stretch of beach, and they like to go out walking, but a larger purpose, whether related to fundraising, policy change, or coastal monitoring, doesn’t seem to resonate very well with this group. It’s possible that different messaging would be effective in motivating existing volunteers, or that they need to target different communities to ramp up this aspect of their program.
Lessons pulled from volunteer activities in general speak to citizen science, too. While many people choose their program because they care about sea turtles or want to put their list of observed birds to good use, keeping people involved is perhaps more related to the feeling of community people get through participation. Citizen science events serve as a place to meet new friends with shared interests and spend time with old friends. Dickinson et al. write that the mantra “easy, fun, and social” is the way to bring in and maintain a large volunteer base. Annual holiday parties and other face-to-face time is critical to that social atmosphere and also provide a forum for showing summarized results and what the data’s been used for.
While I haven’t run a citizen science program myself, and therefore don’t have first-hand knowledge of the challenges of recruitment, I *have* occasionally been a volunteer and have faced the hard decision of which group to join. When there is so much needing to be done, it can be overwhelming to decide which project is the most pressing, most engaging to me, and could benefit most from the limited time I can give.
I think these issues may be another interesting point for this discussion: from the volunteer side, how did you hear about your project? Was it from word of mouth, internet searches, pure happenstance of running into a group doing visible work on a beach, or something else? And how did you choose…?
Please comment on your own experiences and theories as to what might help recruit and retain volunteers in the long- term.